Outsound New Music Summit: Karen Borca and Positive Knowledge

The final night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured a performance by Karen Borca, returning to the Bay Area for the first time in two decades. For those not familiar with Borca, she is one of the few bassoonists in avant-garde jazz and free jazz; and she had a long and illustrious career playing with many of the greats in the field, including Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons. On this night, she was joined by two figures in the local jazz and experimental-music scene, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Donald Robinson on drums.

Karen Borca trio
[ Karen Borca Trio (Karen Borca, Lisa Mezzacappa, Donald Robinson). Photo: peterbkaars.com]

Bassoon is a hard instrument to play in any genre, let alone jazz. But Borca made it sound effortless. There were sections that featured the instrument’s well-known lower registers, but also higher melodic lines and runs more often associated with saxophones. Interestingly, Borca discussed how she started on saxophone in school and was shredding the instrument until she was advised to try the bassoon, as it was both more challenging and more likely to make her stand out for scholarships and such. And this turned out to be the right decision. Musically, things unfolded with sparse lines and harmonies and the three performers bounced off one another. The best moments were when the notes from bassoon, bass and drum all seemed to form a single line.

Karen Borca
[ Karen Borca. Photo: peterbkaars.com]

It was a shorter set, but very well received with audience clamoring for more afterwards. But I can understand that the music took a lot of energy. But it was a great experience, and Karen Borca has now taken her place alongside Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveros, and all the other women in music that I want to be when I finally grow up.

The Karen Borca trio was preceded by Positive Knowledge, a project of Oluyemi Thomas (bass clarinet and other instruments) and Ijeoma Thomas (voice). They were joined by Hamir Atwal on drums.

Positive Knowledge
[Positive Knowledge. Clockwise from left: Oluyemi Thomas, Hamir Atwal, Ijeoma Thomas.]

I have heard Positive Knowledge before, and know how their music unfolds. There are sparse, scratchy lines from Oluyemi’s bass clarinet and other wind instruments, including a shawm (or similar instrument), interspersed with Ijeoma’s vocals, which include passages of spoken word as well as more extended sounds. The music is at times quite percussive, but also melodic and energetic. There was an exuberance and joy in the sound, even in the moments that seemed to be melancholy. And Atwal’s drums added a foundational underpinning the sustained the set.

So this concludes our coverage of the 2017 Outsound Music Summit. It was the longest we have covered, with five concerts plus Touch the Gear. It can be a bit of overload, so much music and fellowship in a week, but worth the effort. We look forward to next year, and the inspiration for all the musical adventures between now and then.

Outsound New Music Summit: VOCO and Surplus 1980

Each night of the Outsound New Music Summit is different, but some more different than others. Such was the case with the fourth night of this year’s festival which featured two loud rock-oriented bands.

The tone of the evening was set with the opening sounds from VOCO.

Voco

The group features Alex Yeung (of Say Bok Gwai) on guitar, Tim Sullivan on drums, and Josh Martin on bass, with guest Joshua Marshall on saxophone. Think rock power trio meets experimental jazz. The band is at times punk, at times metal, at times experimental, but with serious chops. There were the periods that were Zappa-esque, mixing rock and experimental guitar with saxophone and bass runs. There was the dub-metal onslaught at times, reminiscent of the bands Last Exit, or Blind Idiot God. And there was also softer complex drones and percussive sounds from Yeung on guitar, with an array of interconnected effects pedals.

Alex Yeung
[Alex Yeung. Photo peterbkaars.com]

These more experimental moments, enhanced with electronics, brought to mind the story about the band’s name coming from Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction writing (discussed during the pre-show Q&A). In contrast, there was a particularly fun moment when drummer Andre Custodio walked up on stage from the audience and sat down at a second drum set. What ensued was an epic double-drum performance that was much funkier than the set as a whole, and also reminiscent of the multiple drum sets we saw a few weeks earlier with King Crimson. This was followed by a final segment that brought the set to a sonically intense close.

It was then time for Surplus 1980 to take the stage.

Surplus 1980
[Surplus 1980. Photo peterbkaars.com]

I did play with Surplus 1980 as part of the regular lineup from 2012 through 2015. I have seen them several times since then, but I have to say the current lineup and set has taken the band to a new level. The performance is tighter and there is increased variety among the tunes. The set began with two new tunes: “Pigeon Obstacle Course” and “Temporarily Present”. “Pigeon” was a short instrumental with Moe! Staiano and Melne wearing pigeon heads.

Surplus 1980 Pigeons

“Temporarily Present” was a longer song, about 10 minutes, and quite reminiscent of early New Wave from late 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed, the call-and-response vocals between Moe! and Melne and new bassist HR Nelly reminded me a bit of early B-52s performances. The remaining “newish” song was “Question After Ended Question”, which features members of the band playing tuned bundt pans.

After this, the band continued with some familiar songs. I have to admit, I did feel pretty nostalgic hopping up and down during “Failure of Commitment” as I did when I played with them. The new feature on that tune was Moe! on saz. And Melne has come into her own on staging, providing energy and character enough of the whole band. One often just sees her as a bright pink blur as she dances about the stage.

Melne Melne

Guitarist Bill Wolter was solid as always; and Mark Pino was a force of nature on drums, even overcoming a somewhat rebellious kick drum (you can read more about it on his blog.

Outsound New Music Summit: neem and Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air

The third concert of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit was truly a study in contrasts between minimalism and large-ensemble exuberance.

First up was neem, the duo project of Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin) and Kelley Kipperman (double bass).

neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul)
[neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul). Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

This was minimalism in its truest form, starting with the deliberate silence led by Fluke-Mogul before the first note was intoned. The music unfolded in a similarly sparse manner, with plenty of room to observe the details the sounds from both artists’ extended techniques. Although open and spacious, there was also an intimacy in some sections where the two closely followed one another musically, bouncing sounds from one instrument to the other. Whether intentional or not, one could envision the music unfolding in a natural landscape.

By contrast, Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air, was large and exuberant, and featured a ten-piece ensemble. In addition to Brown, the group featured Darren Johnston on trumpet, Lorin Benedict on voice, Andrew Joron on theremin, Dave MacNab and John Finkbeiner on guitars, Dan Zemelman on piano, and Vijay Anderson and Alan Hall on drums.

Sheldon Brown's Blood of the Air
[Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The work centered around “speech melodies” created from readings by the Beat-era poet Philip Lamantia. Each piece began with a recording of Lamantia reading his poetry, and one of the musicians (often Brown himself) responding in a melody that matched the prosody of Lamentia’s speech. The melodies served as points of departure with the ensemble responding with rhythmic vamps, countermelodies, and solos. When I wasn’t watching Brown’s solos or drawn into Lorin Benedict’s frenetic scatting, I found myself captivated by Zemelman’s virtuosic piano playing, both comping and solo. It was both musically and technically impressive. But the group functioned together as a unit, even in a setting that featured a lot of improvisation, and remained tight.

It is interesting to note that despite the musical contrast, both groups were very much focused on listening as a central element. For Blood of the Air, it was listening to the melody of the rhythm and poetry, and then to one other to form the tightness and musical phrasing of the ensemble. In neem, it was also listening and responding to one another, but was also “deep listening” to the individual sounds of the instruments, and especially to the spaces between the sounds. Yes, all good music requires disciplined listening, but sometimes it’s good to step back and take note of it.

Outsound New Music Summit: Usufruct and Evil Genius

The concert portion of the Outsound New Music Summit opened on Tuesday with performances by Usufruct and Evil Genius. The groups both have unique and fun names, but offered up quite different performances and aesthetics. But they both included instruments that I feel are under-utilized in contemporary music: bass flute and tuba.

Bass flute and tuba

Usufruct is the duo project of Polly Moller on voice, flute and bass flute; and Tim Walters on electronics (specifically, software processing using custom SuperCollider programs). The word usufruct means “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property”, a concept which is reflected in the duo’s use of found texts and musical materials from the public domain, modified and reassembled in new and surprising ways.

Usufruct.  Polly Moller and Tim Walters

The music unfolded with a sparse texture that featured single broken lines on flutes and voice interspersed with electronics. Some of the electronic sounds could be readily traced to their sources from Moller’s performance, but others were more obscure. There was often a rather deep and ominous quality to many of the electronic sounds. The texts were interpreted in short bursts that often hid the original sources, although an early section was clearly from some legal document – it almost seemed like it was defining and proscribing punishments for treason. The sections of text from the Star Spangled Banner in the later portion of the set was much clearer, even when broken up. It’s hard to imagine that these texts were not chosen with our current political milieu in mind.

Polly Moller
[Polly Moller on bass flute. Photo peterbkaars.com]

The bass flute is an instrument ripe for electronic processing, and the segments in which it was featured included both harmonized and delayed accompaniment as well as hits and noisier elements derived from extended techniques. Overall, Usufruct’s performance was dark, a bit foreboding, but simultaneously quite clever and playful, as fitting the personalities and aesthetics of the artists.

Calling your band “Evil Genius” sets very high expectations. There were no diabolical death rays, but the Los-Angeles-based trio features Stefan Kac on tuba, Max Kutner on guitar, and Michael “Bonepocket” Lockwood on drums; and performed an energetic an imaginative experimental jazz set.

Evil Genius
[Evil Genius. Photo peterbkaars.com]

Kac’s tuba anchored the group musically. At times he was a bassist, providing solid rhythmic foundation alongside Lockwood’s whimsical and frenetic drumming. But he also made the tuba a melodic instrument at times. Kutner’s sometimes harmonic and sometimes percussive guitar hovered above the other elements. I appreciated the rhythmic grounding of the trio, even as they punctuated it with dry noisier sections. The music freely mixed experimental sounds and rock idioms with their jazz foundation. It has brash, it was hard, but it was also meticulous and filled with softer moments. And they left room for empty space and sparse elements before returning to a driving funky vibe. Quite a variety from what is structurally a “power trio.” The set was divided into several discreet compositions, with all members of the band contributing. So, are they “evil”? Not at all. Indeed, I was quite impressed with the group musically, and I did pick up a copy of their debut CD at the show and look forward to listening to it.

Overall it was a strong start to this year’s Summit concerts. We will bring you the remaining three nights as they unfold.

Outsound New Music Summit: Touch the Gear

The 2017 Outsound New Music Summit kicked off this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear event. As always, there were several musicians and instrument-makers were on hand to demonstrate their setups or inventions.

alphastare

Above we see Alphastare demonstrating his setup for processing of synthesized and recorded sounds that he uses in his live shows. Below, CDP bandmate Tom Djll shows his analog modular synthesizer setup with sundry external boxes for expressive control of sound.

Tom Djll

I opted to show my modular synth as well this year, along with the Moog Theremini.

CatSynth setup at Touch the Gear, with Modular and Moog Theremini

The theremin is always a popular item at this event.

Kim Nucci demonstrated some custom modules alongside a Korg MS-20 mini and a DIY metal instrument with sensors.

Kim Nucci

I have always found metal plus electronics a musically interesting combination.

Among the more unusual and surprising instruments this year was Dania Luck’s musical chessboard. It contained sensors for the magnetic chess pieces, with each square of the board triggering a different synthesizer in a SuperCollider patch.

Dania Luck.  Chess board and SuperCollider patch.

This wasn’t the only SuperCollider program being shown, as our friend Tim Walters demonstrated his patch and controller setup. It is the setup he will use as part of Usufruct in the opening concert for the Summit.

Tim Walters.  SuperCollider and controller.

Tim Thompson was on hand with the latest incarnation of his electronic-music instrument, the Space Palette Pro.

Tim Thompson.  Space Palette Pro
[Tim Thompson demonstrates the Space Palette Pro to Outsound director Rent Romus.]

It uses the same software as previous versions of the Space Palette, but with a new more compact interface based on new touch-sensitive pads from Sensel Morph. These pads are quite impressive in both response and feel, and we at CatSynth will definitely be looking into them.

Not all the demos included electronics. There were several acoustic instruments demonstrated by the Pet the Tiger collective (David Samas, Ian Saxton, Tom Nunn, Derek Drudge), including this beautiful kalimba tuned to 31edo.

Kalimba with 31edo tuning.  Pet the Tiger

I would love to write a piece for it one of these days. There was also a large metalophone with a deep resonant tone, interesting tuning, and some satellite “bass” notes.

Pet the Tiger.  Metalophone.

Back inside the hall, Motoko Honda demonstrated a network of electronic devices processing voice, along with a fun circuit-bent instrument.

Motoko Honda

Matt Davignon brought his setup for expressive manipulation and processing of samples and other pre-recorded sound materials.

Matt Davignon

We would also like to thank Matt for his efforts organizing this event every year! We would also like to thank the folks at VAMP for co-presenting and bringing a pop-up shop of records and sundry vintage and musical items.

It was a fun afternoon as always, and it was great to see families in attendance. And there were multiple things to inspire me musically and technologically. We will see where that goes. Next up, the concerts…

CDP at the Make-Out Room, San Francisco

Today we look back at the May 1 performance by Census Designated Place (CDP) at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco, as part of the monthly Monday Make-Out series.

We were all very excited to play this show. And then things started going awry. First, our synth player Tom Djll was ill an unable to make the gig. And when we were about to go on, I found myself with cable faults and other technical issues. I had actually anticipated many things and had several redundancies, but also a few blind spots, particularly around 1/4” cables. That will not happen again. And after the anxiety of those mishaps in front of a packed room, we played on, and it turned out to be a great show. We played very well, indeed the heads of the various tunes came out as well as I have heard them, and the energy throughout was great. We even had folks dancing in the audience.

You can see a bit of our set in this clip, featuring our newest tune Marlon Brando.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

We were preceded by two other bands. First was a project from our friend Lucio Menegon from New York, together with Janie Cowan on upright bass and John Hanes on drums.

Lucio Menagon Trio

Lucio’s guitar performance had a very narrative, almost storytelling quality. This was set against a mixture of idiomatic rhythms and percussive stops from Cowan and Hanes.

They were followed by a quartet featuring Anton Hatwich from Chicago together with Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Josh Smith on saxophone and Hamir Atwal on drums.

Anton Hatwich Quartet

During this time, the crowd at the Make-Out room continued to grow, and by the time we were setting up it was as crowded as I have seen there since I played there with Surplus 1980 some four years earlier. Which made the technical difficulties all the more stressful. But as stated earlier, the show ultimately went well as a trio with myself, Mark Pino on drums and Joshua Marshall on saxophones. The music was very well received by the audience and the other musicians.

Thanks to Karl Evangelista for organizing the series, Rent Romus for helping with logistics on that night, and all the folks at the Make-Out Room. Overall, it was a good show, and some important lessons learned on technical blind spots. We will get back to composing, rehearsing and preparing for next ones.

Don Buchla Memorial Concerts in San Francisco

This past weekend, April 22 and 23, a series of concerts and panels took place at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco. It was in the midst of a busy and event-packed weekend (including the March for Science which we have already written about), but as Don Buchla was someone that I not only admired but knew personally, it was important to be there.

Buchla lives on though his many innovative musical instruments, and a pop-up museum was set up in side room of the theater showcasing many of them.

Buchla 100 and 200 series

On the right of this photo is an example of Buchla’s iconic 200 series modular synthesizer, probably the instrument for which he is best known. On the left is the rarer 100 series, originally commissioned by electronic-music pioneers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Neither the of these early modular series had a traditional piano-style keyboard, nor were they based traditional subtractive-synthesis architecture of oscillators, filters, and amplifiers in that order, but rather a mix of traditional synth modules with unique waveshapers, low-pass gates. The latter is probably the most recognizable as the “Bucha sound” but the variety of musical sound expression from this instruments continues to be very wide and the ethos of his work can be seen in the current renaissance of sometimes esoteric modular synthesizers. You can read more about his work and philosophy on this tribute website.

There were also some instruments I had not seen before, including the Buchla Touché and the 700 series / MIDAS.

Buchla Touche and MIDAS systems

These were more conventional in the sense of having a keyboard and a more fixed topology, but were still quite versatile in terms of their software. They certainly have a very vintage 1980s look, especially with the computer monitors and graphics.

The evening concert began with tape pieces by George Lewis and a premier of a new piece by Laurie Spiegel.

Laurie Spiegel

Spiegel’s piece had a dark but sparse quality, with discretely positioned sounds and timbres.

The live performances began with Laetitia Sonami performing on a custom gestural controller.

Her work is often focused on live movement and gesture and indeed has been an influence on my own performance practice with the theremin. But Sonami is adept at very subtle motion with seemly precise affects on the sound output.

The live performances continued with Bob Ostertag, who controlled live music and video from the center of the hall.

Ostertag’s sound is quite distinctive independent of the particular instruments in use, usually noisy and hard driving. And this performance was no exception – indeed, I was able to instantly recognize the sound as his when it started, even without being able to see him at first in the darkened space. The music however, did have dynamic range and timbral variation that gave it a narrative contour. The video was abstract, but again with a bit of an urgent quality that kept things moving forward.

Morton Subotnik’s music is in many way the opposite of Bob Ostertag’s. It is quiet and very subtle, focused on small points and details in time.

Morton Subotnik

It was spare, almost severe, but listening closely one can appreciate many of the timbral details. The changes are musical but on a different scale than one is accustomed to. The frequencies timbres are complex even while the amplitudes are low, and it is listening to these and the slight percussive elements that punctuate the music that one begins to hear how it fits together.

In between the live performances there was a tribute video for Don Buchla, featuring images as well as interviews with him. There were also cameos by a great many people I know in the electronic-music world. It was very touching, but also quite humorous, all in keeping with Don’s character.

The concert continued until late at night – in some ways, it was set up more likely a crowded nightclub or impromptu electronic-music party than a traditional concert. It was great to see it so well attended – the room was packed with people standing or sitting on the floor, but it did make focused listening a bit of a challenge at times. I was unfortunately not able to stay for the whole night, so missed a few live sets, including from friends Marielle V. Jakobsons, Tom Dimuzio, Matt Ingalls, and Richard Devine. I do hope to see them live again soon.

I also hope this is not the last event we have to celebrate the life and work of Don Buchla. I personally still feel like I have only scratched the surface of his instruments as a performer and listener.

SFEMF Night 3: Arcane Device, Thea Farhadian, Alessandro Bosetti

Today we look at the third night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), which took place on September 10 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco.

The evening opened with a set by Alessandro Bosetti, who performs with spoken-word vocals and electronics.

Alessandro Bosetti
[Photo by Pamela Z]

His texts are not traditionally lyrical, indeed they can be awkward or even absurd at times, or parts of imperfect translations. But he challenges himself and the audience to find the musicality within them. Most of what the audience hears are that result from the live electronic processing. The language remains audible, but it is transformed in a complex mixture of inharmonicity, noise and other types of musical sound. The performance was intense – and must have been physically exhausting for Bosetti, who is known for his work on radio.

While Bosetti’s set was intense and frenetic, Thea Farhadian’s performance was something altogether different. She performed a set featuring violin and live electronics.

Thea Farhadian
[Photo by Pamela Z]

Without straying into too-conventional territory, Farhadian’s sounds were lyrical and haunting. The harmonic qualities of violin were of course featured, but also the percussive sounds, which when combined with the electronic processing created rhythm and motion to the piece. Although there was no visual element other than the performer herself, the music had a visual quality, with long curving lines like brush strokes with thick paint punctuated by dots.

The final performance featured Arcane Device (aka David Lee Myers) on modular synthesizer with live generated visuals.

Arcane Device

He is known his creation of music from feedback and other noise sources, and so we were expecting a noise-centered performance. And we weren’t disappointed. But it was really the visuals that made this experience unique. The output of the synthesizer was fed into a special two-dimensional oscilloscope that was projected behind the performer. At first it was small, squished round elements as the sound started simply, but quickly grew complex creating chaotic textures that matched the sound. This was indeed a fun set to both watch and hear.

Overall it was a good night for this year’s SFEMF. And it was well attended. Other obligations kept we away from nights 2 and 4 this year, but I am looking forward to the festival’s return next year.

Pitta of the Mind at Lost Church, San Francisco

Today we look back at Pitta of the Mind’s set at Word Performances, which took place at the Lost Church in San Francisco. It was, in our opinion, one of our best performances. You can see and hear for yourself in this video.


[Video by Todd Siegel]

It was a short performance, but very tight, mixing the poems with piano, theremin and acoustic elements. I like using the percussion instruments along with the electronics, as it adds to the timbre and theatrics. We will definitely do more of that.

The evening featured readings and dance in addition to music. Our host Cybele Zufolo read some of her writings while dancing flamenco with Damien Alvarez.

20160623-IMG_0588

Colleen McKee read another of Cybele Zufolo’s pieces about her adventures as a show girl in Japan, in addition to some of her own writing. She even featured some singing in the set.

20160623-IMG_0555

Daniel Berkman performed a solo set on kora a visually and sonically beautiful instrument.

20160623-IMG_0588

Every set featured performative elements. For her reading, Zarina Zabrisky appeared as a super villain.

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Overall it was a fun night, and we had an overflowing crowd. Many thanks to Cybele Zufolo and Todd Siegel for hosting us and all their work putting these shows together, and to the Lost Church for providing such a unique space in San Francisco.